I Have Been Here Before – Jermyn Street Theatre, London

Writer: J. B. Priestley
Director: Anthony Biggs
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright

A Yorkshire pub is the down-to-earth setting for J. B. Priestley’s remarkable play about interdependence within society and the power of the human imagination to challenge fate. It’s perfectly natural for strangers to meet at an inn, but not so common for life-changing and dramatic events to emerge from the seemingly humdrum encounters and humble location. It takes a playwright more famous for An Inspector Calls to create a similarly intricate and immensely satisfying story of disparate characters and themes coming together during one momentous Whitsun weekend. Anthony Biggs, artistic director at the Jermyn Street Theatre, has a great track record of reviving rarely produced work for this intimate space, and the New Actors Company provides the excellent cast.

Keith Parry plays the stout yeoman landlord, Sam Shipley, and Vicky Binns his bustling and capable daughter, Sally Pratt, both with just the right Yorkshire accents and idiom (“it’s champion” is a phrase that could be borrowed to describe this play). Their concerns are in the here and now: Can they fill the rooms that have just become available through cancellation? They can, and they’re delighted by the arrival of the well-to-do Mr and Mrs Ormund, a workaholic and hard-drinking northern businessman, Walter (played by David Schaal), and his pretty and petite young wife, Janet (played by Alexandra Dowling). They’ve got money to spend, and problems to sort out. What looks like a typical marital situation (Walter attends to company business while Janet is left to her own devices) develops into a far more intriguing situation with the arrival of two more guests: Dr Görtler and Oliver Farrant.

Daniel Souter as Farrant is the quietly spoken young headmaster at the school where Sally’s son is a pupil and where Walter is a governor (already, Priestley is sketching out the various connections between people who normally don’t have much to do with one another). Edward Halsted as Dr Görtler is older, and a “foreigner” – an exile from Germany in fact. He’s lost everything, and somehow he finds himself in this remote place. His migrant experience resonates down the ages (he’s not always welcome by the locals), and especially with contemporary events in Europe and the Middle East.

But it is his peculiar and precise insight into the affairs of his fellow lodgers that compels our attention, and which gradually builds to an astonishing conclusion. He shouldn’t know a thing about the lives of the other three guests, and yet he knows something very particular about their future. With his clipped Teutonic accent and brusque manner, Dr Görtler is the perfect character to espouse what can seem like an odd theory of time. His mention of Einstein is no accident, alluding to ideas about relativity that were still new in the 1930s. Odder still is the element of spooky precognition, along with talk of cycles (or spirals) of history that individuals must go through. This works brilliantly, dramatically, even if it may not stand up to very much rational scrutiny (another theme of the play). What may help with any queasy feeling at the supernatural turn of the story is the simple recognition that, in an evolutionary sense, we (our immortal genes) actually have been here before, and been through the same situations – falling in love, falling out of love, dealing with rivals – time and time again over millions of years.

Whatever the merit and interplay of ideas, the play as a drama works like a well-oiled Swiss watch. It’s anything but mechanistic, however, with each actor’s performance creating believable and emotionally complex characters. And there is also a moving final scene, with the simplest of everyday acts, and the simplest of lines, as one character says to another: “You can sit down and smoke your pipe.” That we have made it this far, and to this point, is a huge relief.

Runs until 21 May 2016

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